Taking in a Eugene O’Neill play on a summer evening might seem akin to bringing a Dostoevsky paperback to the beach.
But Ah, Wilderness! won’t fit anybody’s preconceptions of O’Neill—the “father of American drama” best known for his towering works Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. But as Nat (Randall Newsome), the patriarch of the Miller family at the heart of the play, says, “It’s love, not liquor, this time.”
Set in a New England beach town on the Fourth of July in 1906, Ah, Wilderness! is O’Neill’s take on a rather non-dysfunctional family. O’Neill, of course, didn’t have much personal experience in that department, and the play’s got more than a tinge of fantasy to it.
Nat and wife Essie (Ora Jones) have the kind of home where children perform music for parents, punishment is never more than a stern talking-to and everybody is remarkably well-read. O’Neill always said Ah, Wilderness! came to him in a dream.
“Love does conquer all, and the family bonds conquer a lot of things, and that’s what I think is so beautiful about the play—and kind of so wistful in O’Neill’s writing of it,” Steve Scott, the director of the major revival, says. “He wanted a family like that.”
But before you expect to see something akin to Leave It to Beaver, we’re still talking O’Neill. Uncle Sid (Larry Bates) is a drunk (though a very funny one), Aunt Lily (Kate Fry) is a lonely “old maid” (to use the parlance of the times) and moments of levity inevitably turn on a dime to darkness.
And then there’s Richard (Niall Cunningham), Nat and Essie’s poetry-spouting, pseudo-intellectual, cynical, selfish, romantic, lovelorn, horny, innocent and unintentionally hilarious 16-year-old son. At the risk of causing O’Neill to roll over in his grave, think a 1906 version of Anthony Michael Hall in a John Hughes movie. Ah, Wilderness! is Richard’s story—and probably, in part, O’Neill’s, too (though he claimed the character was based on his childhood best friend).
We follow Richard as he alternates between acting like a pompous ass and desperate fool with girlfriend Muriel (Ayssette Muñoz); gets sloppy drunk with a prostitute (though doesn’t consummate the act); and, before lessons are learned, struts around the Miller home uttering declarations like “I’m a pessimist!” and “Life is a joke!”
Such ideas and transgressions—much more tragically presented in O’Neill’s other works—come off as the folly of adolescence here.
“We see what’s happened when you’re nurtured, rather than condemned for all the stuff you do,” Scott says. “Ah, Wilderness! deals with some of the same family problems and same issues and themes you’ll find in a play like Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And it has remarkable depth if you allow it to emerge. It’s just that in Ah Wilderness!, the family members try to support each other rather than running away.”
Scott points to how in a play like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, characters keep their distance, with directors often positioning actors at the far reaches of the stage. Here, on a beachfront set whose floor is deliberately sloped (“It’s skewed, it’s not absolutely real,” says Scott), the Millers are on top of each other, teasing, laughing, touching, even in the tensest moments.
“We all come from dysfunctional families,” Scott says. “But I think that’s what kind of seduced everybody in the cast. They get to participate in a family that is not exactly like the family they grew up in, but may have the best moments of it.”
Mark Bazer is the host of The Interview Show on WTTW Chicago Public Media and a freelancer writer.